Only American English in America? No way, Jose!

Jan 4, 2011 by

Over the holiday break, I received an email from an anonymous correspondent, possibly a Belgian of Flemish descent, in response to my posting about the linguistic situation in Belgium and language laws more generally. I did not respond to that message for three good reasons: (1) I never respond to anonymous correspondence, (2) it was personally offensive and (3) it was more political than scholarly. But what was particularly bothersome about that email is the author’s ignorance of — and perhaps even lack of interest in — facts. So I will respond to one point the author of that email made in this forum.

According to my mysterious correspondent, each country needs to have an official language, imposed on everybody not only in the areas of state administration, courts, education and the media, but in all spheres of public interpersonal communication. Moreover, it was claimed that “normal” countries are already doing so (so why shouldn’t Belgium, the argument went). The author was adamant that I could not even imagine anything but American English being used in public anywhere in America (of course, what people speak in the privacy of their homes is not anybody else’s business, at least my correspondent acceded that).

But I don’t need to use my (admittedly, vivid) imagination at all! In fact, all I need to do is walk out of my house — where, I admit, a language other than American English is most commonly used — to hear and see other languages spoken and written openly in public.

Here, in California 42% of the population speak a language other than (American) English at home and many of them do so in public as well. Of course, Spanish has a major position among non-English languages: in the state of California, 67% of those who speak a language other than English in the home, speak Spanish. That’s approximately 10 million people! Other popular Heritage languages in California are Tagalog (4.8% of non-English speakers), Chinese (3.7%), Vietnamese (3.3%) and Korean (2.4%).

Languages and numbers are different for various counties: for example, in Santa Clara county (where Stanford University is located), 74% of Heritage speakers speak Spanish, 8% Vietnamese, 6% Chinese and 5% Tagalog, but in San Francisco county only 27% of Heritage language speakers speak Spanish, while 40% speak Chinese, 9% Tagalog, 5% speak Russian (cf. to the national average of 1%), 3% Vietnamese and 3% French.

So with such high numbers of Heritage speakers, it is not at all surprising that one hears Spanish (and less frequently other languages) in public as well. When I shop at my local supermarket, I can’t help but listen to Spanish-language music. When I call my bank, I have to choose whether I want prompts in English or Spanish. At least 6 local TV channels here broadcast only in languages other than English (mostly, Spanish and Chinese). Voting materials arrive in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Vietnamese, in addition to English. Hospitals, courts and local administration offices provide interpreters — free of charge. Streets are named El Camino Real, San Felipe and Castro. And I can go on…

Should English be made the (de jure) official language in the United States? Some people think so. But I don’t agree. Moreover, the argument can be rephrased to make Spanish the official language, at least in California: after all, English became the language of administration here only when California became independent of Mexico. Just as one can see the imposition of Flemish on Walloon speakers as a backlash against the earlier imposition of Walloon on Flemish speakers in 1830s, one can see a similar institution of Spanish as the official language of California as a backlash against the anglophonization of the state in 1840s and ’50s.

But note how quickly an argument about language turns into an argument about identity politics, whether we are talking about Belgium, California or any other place. And that was my point precisely: I argued against language laws as such because they are a political rather than a linguistic tool.

I hope my anonymous correspondent reads this posting too…

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